In 2015 Prof Alison Fell (University of Leeds) embarked on a new AHRC-funded research project, supported by Gateways to the First World War, focusing on Sister Edie Appleton’s war diaries. Alongside Prof Christine Hallett (University of Manchester), Alison is helping to develop a new play based on the diaries. The collaboration is with Sara Robinson - a freelance theatre producer, and Edie's great-great-niece – a writer, director, and designer, the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, the National Archives and other partners.
Edie’s diaries, extracts from which are available online are a wonderfully evocative record of the trials, as well as the occasional pleasures, of nursing at the front. Here’s one of her vivid depictions of wounded and traumatized soldiers in General Hospital No 1 at Étretat, a seaside town 20 miles north of Le Havre, in September 1916:
September 11th. We had a convoy of 399 in yesterday, only 70 wounded. Far the most of the sick were suffering badly from shell shock. It is sad to see them, they dither like palsied old men, and talk all the time about their mates who were blown to bits, or their mates who were wounded and never brought in. The whole scene is burnt into their brains and they can’t get rid of the sight of it. One rumpled, raisin faced old fellow said his job was to take bombs up to the bombers, and sometimes going through the trenches, he had to push past men with their arms blown off or wounded anywhere and they would yell at him “Don’t touch me,” but he had to get past, because the fellows must have their bombs. Then he would stand on something wobbly and nearly fall down and see it was a dying or dead man – half covered in mud.
As a trained nurse rather than a volunteer VAD nurse, Edie not only had medical skills, but equally had developed the coping mechanisms necessary to deal with the physical and emotional suffering of her patients. She rarely lets slip any moments of despair in her diary, although it’s clear that at times she was under enormous pressure. She equally had a lively sense of humour, and included some wonderful sketches as well as the written entries. A key theme running through the diaries is her love of swimming, which provided some temporary relief from the intensity of her nursing work.
The challenge the project addresses is how to turn Edie’s diaries into a piece of theatre that can engage a wide range of audiences. The creative team are meeting regularly with Alison and Christine, and consulting a range of primary sources, as well as running a series of workshops, in order to develop a well-researched and innovative theatrical production. The play will highlight the high and low points of her nursing experience, showing in particular the importance of comradeship between the nurses as they treated the myriad of illnesses and injuries suffered by First World War combatants.
Sister Edie Appleton